Long Reads

What it's really like to volunteer at a domestic violence helpline

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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“You put the phone down and you’re left wondering, what if…?”

The National Domestic Violence Helpline was launched as a free helpline back in December 2003. The helpline, run in partnership between two charities, Refuge and Women’s Aid, is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. It provides essential support and information for those who need it, with fully trained advisers able to offer services such as help with accessing refuge accommodation, or advice on what steps to take next.

Unfortunately, domestic violence is a serious problem here in the UK. In England and Wales alone, an estimated 1.9 million adults – including 1.2 million women – were abused by a partner in the year ending March 2017. Women make up 70% of domestic homicide victims, and two women are killed each week by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone.

The scale of the issue is reflected in the number of people who contact the helpline. It receives over 200 calls a day, with more than 86,000 calls registered in the year 2016-2017. This number continues to rise year-on-year.

But what is it like to be one of the volunteers who works on the other side of the phone, handling calls and supporting those who get in touch? Here, stylist.co.uk talks to Meg, who has been volunteering at the helpline at Refuge since October 2015, about her experiences. 

Two women are killed each week by a current or former partner in England and Wales

I’d been trying to find a volunteering opportunity ever since I moved to London, but it’s surprisingly hard when you have a full time job and need something that can fit in around that. I happened to meet someone online who was working as a volunteer on the helpline, which sounded really interesting, and when I realised they were looking for volunteers I decided to apply. That was about three years ago now – the rest is history.

The helpline has a strong feminist cause, which fits in with my personal beliefs. And although not directly, my life has been touched by domestic violence, so it just happened really organically.

My family and friends were all really positive about it when I started. I was surprised to find myself doing it – I’m quite an emotional person and I felt that doing something that intense might be a lot to take on. But I found myself thinking, ‘actually, I’m going to give this a go’.

The application was straightforward – I filled in an online form and was invited for an interview with the manager of the helpline. Then I was accepted onto the training, which was a week-long course. I had to book the time off work but it was worth it, because I got so much out of it. I learnt all about the practical side of the role, which involved learning about things such as housing law, and also how to be an active listener. That’s important because a lot of women who experience domestic violence might have had a tough time telling their families and other people what was going on, so it’s really important that they feel believed. The training was a proper course – the women who work at Refuge are amazing and thoroughly passionate about what they’re doing, so it’s a great learning environment.

The shifts are really flexible – I do four hours a week and I can go after work or pick up shifts on the weekend.

After training I did three shadow shifts, listening in to other call handlers. The first time I ever spoke on the phone was during my last shadow shift and it was actually more nerve-wracking than flying solo. Everyone who goes on the phone for the first time is nervous and I still get nervous sometimes, even after doing this for years.

“A lot of women who experience domestic violence might have had a tough time telling their families.”

During that first call I really willed myself to not be nervous. Then someone reminded me that whoever you speak to on the other end of the line will have a reason for calling, and they’ll take the call in whatever direction they want. It was comforting to know that I would just be responding to whatever was put in front of me.

And the call turned out to be quite straightforward. Sometimes there will be additional barriers to our work, for example when people aren’t able to access traditional channels of support, due to an immigration status, which means that we have to think on our feet for different options. Those calls might have less obvious solutions, but luckily our training covers lots of different situations.

Sometimes those calls can be really difficult. But on this one, I looked up some information for a woman who wanted refuge and it was wrapped up quite neatly and quickly. Once I’d done that first call I’d ripped off the plaster, and I became more confident from there on.

Now I work as a volunteer on the Helpline at Refuge’s offices in central London. I do four hours a week and, as I mainly work at the evenings and weekends, I’m usually picking up voicemails. When a caller rings the Helpline they can choose either to go through to talk to someone there and then, or they can leave a voicemail for a call back. Some people prefer live calls, but I like voicemails because it gives you an idea of what’s waiting for you when you ring. Every call is different but someone will normally tell you their name and give you a safe time to call them back, which we need to take into account.

It’s really hard to describe a typical shift as they’re so varied. Sometimes I’ll take 10 calls in four hours, other times I’ll go through the voicemails and ring people back but no one picks up. Then sometimes I’ll take three calls that last an hour each.

Making decisions about what to do when you’re experiencing domestic violence is a process and takes time. People are always encouraged to call back and there’s a lot of importance put on that quality of support.

In my experience, no one would ever ring the helpline and regret it. Sometimes you speak to people whose family and friends have encouraged them to ring and they’re not quite sure why they’re calling, and I think they have a misconception that we’re going to wade straight in. But I think if someone is considering calling then they should, because nothing bad is going to come from having spoken to us. No one is going to force you to do anything you don’t want to do, and you’re not wasting anyone’s time. We are simply a free resource of people who are happy to listen, provide non-judgmental support and help, no matter what the circumstance.  

“No one is going to force you to do anything you don’t want to do, and you’re not wasting anyone’s time.”     

As a volunteer, there are lots of difficult parts to the role, as some of it can be quite intense. Certainly for me, the most difficult part is not knowing what happens after the call. You can spend a really good amount of time on the phone to a woman and discuss lots of options with her, but then you put the phone down and you’re left wondering, what if? You can’t check to make sure that person is OK.

However, very occasionally I have found myself talking to the same person more than once, so I can get an idea of how things have gone. We’ve also had people ring up to say positive things, such as to tell us they’re in a refuge now. But there’s rarely a definitive answer, and while you might get a sense of someone’s story, you can never really know what will happen next.

When you go into your training you know you’ll hear about bad things that people have done, and I went in feeling quite prepared for that. But when you actually speak to people who have been failed by the authorities, it’s tough – I can think of a number of cases where women haven’t had the responses they need. We speak to some amazing police officers and social service staffers, and ultimately those people are there trying to do a job.

But sometimes there are holes in the system, where people have tried to reach out for help and have been let down. Those have been some of the most difficult things to deal with, and the calls that have stayed with me the most.

Of course, the role is really rewarding as well. Working with a truly incredible group of female helpline staff is lovely, as we really build each other up and genuinely care about each other. And in terms of the actual role, it’s so rewarding when you’re having a chat with someone and you can feel a palpable difference in them from the beginning to the end of the call. If someone rings us feeling really hopeless or stressed, we can help them feel calmer, believed and more hopeful. It makes you feel like you’re really making a difference, even if it’s just a 40 minute phone call.

Especially when you know someone’s opening up to you about something that’s really difficult – they might be expecting a certain response, but they’ve found someone who will listen and help them. Regardless of the calls I’ve had on shift, I have never felt like it’s been a waste of time. I think if anyone is thinking about doing it I would say go for it – it’s truly been one of the best decisions I have ever made.

If you are experiencing domestic violence or know someone who is, help is available. Contact the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline, run in partnership between Refuge and Women’s Aid, on 0808 2000 247 for information and support, or visit the Women’s Aid or Refuge websites.

The helpline is part-funded by the Home Office, which has recently launched a new domestic abuse bill consultation. This will include the first ever statutory definition of Domestic Abuse, recognising the many kinds of abuse suffered, and new Domestic Abuse Protection Orders. It will also involve the creation of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner to stand up for victims, monitor the provision of domestic abuse services, and hold the Government to account, as well as tougher sentences for domestic abuse cases involving children. You can read more about the consultation here.

Images: Priscilla Du Preez, Anh Le, Tony Lam Hoang, George Gvasalia, Unsplash